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Posted December 04, 2003 by publisher in Business In Cuba

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By ANITA SNOW | Associated Press Writer

HAVANA—The head of Cuba’s largest state-run tourism enterprise has left his job, officials inside the company said Thursday. But authorities would not comment on reports he was arrested amid allegations of corruption in the industry.

“We don’t have any information about that,” Mario Fernandez, of the Tourism Ministry’s foreign relations office, said of reports that Juan Jose Vega was removed from his job as president of the government’s Cubanacan tourism firm amid a probe into company finances.

But employees answering the phone at several Cubanacan travel agencies around the capital said that Vega was no longer the company’s president.

Tourism is this communist country’s No. 1 source of foreign income, and any scandal involving high-ranking officials within the sector would be a highly sensitive political matter.

Citing unnamed government sources, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported from Havana Thursday that Vega was among several officials being held under house arrest pending an investigation. It said the Tourism Ministry was now directly managing Cubanacan.

The BBC said the alleged corruption was uncovered after the government told local businesses they could no longer keep funds in U.S. dollars. In the process of exchanging their holdings into Cuban pesos, shortfalls were discovered, the BBC said.

Cubanacan accounts for about 40 percent of the island’s tourism sector. It operates 51 hotels, a convention center, two marinas, travel offices, stores, restaurants, nightclubs and a taxi service.

Although workers at several Cubanacan offices said they were told Vega was no longer president, a man who answered the phone in the president’s office at company headquarters Thursday morning insisted Vega retained his position, but was unavailable for comment.

The man, like the travel office employees, did not give his name.

Orlando Pedroso, Cubanacan’s international relations director, did not immediately return telephone calls from the AP seeking comment.

Officials at the International Press Center said they had no information about the case.

Protective of its international reputation, especially when it comes to tourism, Cuba traditionally has not publicized details of past scandals in the industry.

Amid rumors of a corruption scandal in August 1999, Cuba’s leadership replaced then-Tourism Minister Osmany Cienfuegos with current Minister Ibrahim Ferradaz for unexplained reasons.

The move followed the sacking of several lower-level tourism officials.

At the time, the government said several employees of a Cuban tourism firm were disciplined for inappropriate actions, but denied reports of a widespread corruption scandal in the tourism industry.

The Tourism Ministry assumed a key role this decade after Cuba lost most of its former aid and trade with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As the sugar industry, once Cuba’s primary source of income, began to falter, visitors from Europe and Canada became an importance source of hard currency.

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